Secretary of Defense Mark Esper traveled to South Korea on Thursday to help steer renewed threats from an “enraged” North Korea and an intensified strain in the alliance with Seoul that congressional aides, lawmakers and Korea experts say has been caused by President Donald Trump.
Trump is demanding that South Korea pay roughly 500% more in 2020 to cover the cost of keeping US troops on the peninsula. The price increase has frustrated Pentagon officials and deeply concerned Republican and Democratic lawmakers, according to military officials and congressional aides. It has angered Seoul, where leaders are questioning US commitment to their alliance and wondering whether Trump will pull US forces if they don’t pay the increase.
“Nothing says I love you like a shakedown,” said Vipin Narang, an associate professor at MIT who follows the Korean peninsula.
Congressional aides and Korea experts familiar with the situation say the President’s $4.7 billion demand came out of thin air, and it sent State and Defense Department officials scrambling to justify the number
“There are a lot of hard feelings,” Klingner said of South Korean views of the US right now, adding that “people are questioning the viability of the US as an ally.”
These feelings are being driven in part by US acquiescence to North Korea’s missile launches, which “is raising angst… about whether the US is a reliable ally,” Klingner said. “The exorbitant push to further increase the US demand for the cost of stationing US forces overseas is adding to that.”
Scott Snyder, director of the US-Korea policy program at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the price hike is creating “worry that Trump is doing this as a pretext for withdrawal” of US troops.
“The main side effect that I see is that it raises questions about the credibility of the United States as a protector, as an alliance partner,” Snyder said. “And that’s not good for the relationship.”